Friday, January 29, 2016

PolitiFact trumps the truth

No, this is not one of those classic cases where PolitiFact announces that a claim is true but rates it "False" anyway. This is just a case where PolitiFact's research backed the claim and PolitiFact rated the claim "False" in spite of the evidence.

The victim this time? Donald Trump.

PolitiFact sets the stage with a quotation from Trump's appearance on the CNN show Anderson Cooper 360. But PolitiFact does not include the question Trump was asked. From Trump's response, it looks like Trump was asked why he chose not to attend a presidential primary debate on Fox News:
He (Trump) says a biting Fox News release is why he pulled the plug.

"Well, I’m not a person that respects Megyn Kelly very much. I think she’s highly overrated. Other than that, I don’t care," he told CNN an hour before the debate. "I never once asked that she be removed. I don’t care about her being removed. What I didn’t like was that public relations statement where they were sort of taunting. I didn’t think it was appropriate. I didn’t think it was nice."

His assertion that he "never once" asked for Kelly’s removal piqued our interest.
Was Trump saying he never set Kelly's removal as a precondition for attending the debate? That seems possible, but without the full transcript we can't say.

Do we trust PolitiFact to adequately assess the context and provide that information. No, of course not. PolitiFact makes too many simple errors to garner that type of trust.

After PolitiFact questions whether Trump asked for Kelly's removal, it provides a ton of evidence supposedly supporting the "False" rating it eventually gave to Trump. Except it doesn't add up that way:
"Based on @MegynKelly's conflict of interest and bias she should not be allowed to be a moderator of the next debate," Trump tweeted Jan. 23 and made similar comments in a campaign rally in Iowa the same day
Saying Kelly should not be allowed to be a moderator is not the same as asking for Kelly's removal as moderator. It's certainly not a "full-throated" request for Kelly's removal.
Trump repeated his position that Kelly "should recuse herself from the upcoming Fox News debate," according to Boston Globe reporter James Pindell.
Likewise, saying Kelly should recuse herself from the debate is not the same as asking for her removal.
According to New York, Trump began to threaten a boycott a day later and toy with the idea of holding his own event.
If Trump threatens not to attend the debate and starts talking about holding his own event in the same time slot, is he asking for Kelly's removal? If so, the request is indirect.
Two days before the debate, Trump polled his Twitter followers, asking,"Should I do the #GOPDebate?" (Of over 150,000 responses, 56 percent were "Yes.")

In the tweet, Trump posted a link to an Instagram video, in which he said, "Megyn Kelly is really biased against me. She knows that, I know that., everybody knows. Do you really think she can be unbiased in a debate?"
We see that PolitiFact strikes the same note over and over. If Trump threatens to skip the debate and offers Kelly's involvment as a reason, PolitiFact reasons, then Trump is asking for Kelly's exclusion.

But that's not a case of black-and-white truth, is it?

If Trump never literally asked for Kelly's exclusion, then it's literally true that Trump never asked for Kelly's exclusion. At most, he's implying that he might participate in the debate if Fox removed Kelly from her role in moderating the debate.

Let's look at how PolitiFact justifies its rating of Trump in the conclusion (bold emphasis added):
Trump said, "I never once asked that (Megyn Kelly) be removed" as a debate moderator.

This statement greatly downplays Trump’s comments ahead of the debate, even if his absence really had more to do with a mocking Fox News release in the end.
In the same context where Trump said "I never once asked that she be removed" Trump repeated criticisms of Kelly ("I’m not a person that respects Megyn Kelly very much. I think she’s highly overrated"). And if Trump's main reason for not attending the debate was the nature of the Fox communications in response to his complaints, then downplaying those comments is appropriate.

PolitiFact never ruled out the possibility that Trump stayed away from the debate for the reason he claimed (see bold emphasis above).

PolitiFact's evidence does not support a "False" rating for Trump. That would require an unambiguous example of Trump asking for Kelly's removal. There's nothing like that in PolitiFact's fact check. PolitiFact also failed to provide enough context from the Anderson Cooper interview with Trump to allow readers to verify PolitiFact's judgment.

This is "gotcha" journalism designed to continue feeding a narrative PolitiFact is peddling about Trump. The evidence says Trump was literally correct in saying he did not ask for Kelly's removal. The missing context might further vindicate Trump.

Update Jan. 30, 2016: Clarified the third paragraph to make more clear the context of Trump's appearance on Anderson Cooper 360. 
Update Feb. 29, 2016: Fixed formatting to make clear "His assertion that he "never once" asked for Kelly’s removal piqued our interest" was part of a quotation of PolitiFact. Also added a link to the original PolitiFact article--we apologize for the delay, for we take it as standard practice to link to all our sources.

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